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Issue 62 - The Mannie on the Hill

Scotland Magazine Issue 62
April 2012


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The Mannie on the Hill

David McVey looks at the history of the statue to George Granville Leveson- Gower, Marquis of Stafford and first Duke of Sutherland

As you travel north from Inverness along the seaboard of Easter Ross and Sutherland, you notice something odd among the coastal hills. One of them has a tall, slender shape growing out near its top. The object isn’t quite on the summit; but a short distance on the seaward side of it, so that it looks like a diver about to spring into the Moray Firth.

The object is a monument, comprising a plinth and statue, 100ft high in total. It’s been there since 1837 and commemorates George Granville Leveson-Gower, Marquis of Stafford and first Duke of Sutherland. And many people don’t like it at all.

When you reach the small coastal town of Golspie in Sutherland, the hill – Ben Bhraggie – and the monument loom directly overhead. The seat of the Dukes of Sutherland is Dunrobin Castle, just north of the town and their estates stretch for miles in every landward direction. The Sutherlands have been around since, probably, the 13th century and the earldom was unusual in that succession could pass through the female line. In the late 18th century, Elizabeth, daughter of the 17th Earl of Sutherland, inherited the title and when she married Stafford, he became the Earl; eventually he also became the first Duke. As if there weren’t enough titles flying around already, on the conferring of the dukedom, Elizabeth took the odd designation of Duchess-Countess.

The new duke, his defenders maintain, was surprised to see the poverty and overpopulation among his inland tenants, and at the inefficiency of their subsistence farming methods. So, with an energetic zeal, he began to apply the latest theories of agricultural improvement. In folk memory, at least, these ‘improvements’ depended upon the forcible clearance of the bulk of the population from the land to make way for sheep tended largely by imported lowlanders. Great brutality was sometimes used in evicting the people, with some instances of their homes being burned around them. The Duke’s agents, Patrick Sellar and James Loch, usually get most of the blame for the cruelty, but the Duke can hardly be exonerated; he ordered the work, after all.

In fact, the Duke did create new homes and industries for those of the cleared people who were not forced into emigration; the town of Golspie was largely created with this in mind. However, if you and your family had practised subsistence agriculture for generations, you’d be less than thrilled to be kicked out of your home, marched to the coast, shown into a new house by the sea, and told to make your living by fishing.

The Duke died in 1833 and plans for a monument were put together, the project being funded by subscription. In 1837, the Duke’s likeness was unveiled in all its vastness, staring forever out to sea from just below the 1291ft summit of Ben Bhraggie and dominating, in particular, the town of Golspie.

An excellent footpath now runs to the statue from Golspie, starting from Fountain Road. You rise through forests that are part of the present day Sutherland estates and eventually emerge onto rough heather moorland, the statue looming ominously before you.

As you pause for breath and admire the stunning view out to sea across the town and south over the tidal nature reserve of Loch Fleet, notice how the statue seems to watch over the Sutherland people, protectively or threateningly according to your point of view. In fact, local folk have made their peace with the modern Sutherland dynasty and even regard the monument as an object with some affection, referring to it as ‘The Mannie’. This doesn’t mean they approve of the individual it represents or of his treatment of their forebears, of course. There have been serious suggestions that the statue be torn down and replaced with a more fitting memorial to the people who suffered in the Clearances. As recently as November 2011 attempts to damage the monument made the news. But the Duke is still there; his 170-odd years on the hill can hardly be un-invented. Check the stones which make up the nearby cairn, though; clearly, several lumps of masonry have tumbled from the plinth over the years. Perhaps time, rain and salt gales will finally see to the Mannie.

The stone for the plinth was quarried near the summit itself, but the statue, of different stone, was fashioned in sections by the sculptor, Sir Francis Chantrey, and taken to the site by pony and cart on a specially built track. This track survives and can be used as a descent route, first rising behind the statue to the top of Ben Bhraggie. From here you can look inland to the barren miles of the Sutherland moors. They were not always empty; the Clearances made them so.

I first climbed Ben Bhraggie in the 1980s by this old pony track, with a large group of teenagers.

The first sight of the Duke’s statue, with the plinth obscured, was mistaken for a genuine walker striding across the summit. It can be a little eerie.

From the pony track you can join a path down the dramatic glen of the Golspie Burn, under a massive railway arch, back to Golspie and the main road.

On the other side of the road is Dunrobin Castle.

The castle is the perfect solution for less energetic visitors to Golspie who want to ponder the heritage of the Sutherland family. Bits of Dunrobin Castle are said to date from the 13th century, and a central tower (now surrounded by later construction) was certainly built as long ago as 1401. The current fanciful French Chateau look is a result of rebuilding by Sir Charles Barry between 1845 and 1851 on the orders of the 2nd Duke, when the gardens were also refashioned on the model of Versailles. The castle served as a military hospital during the First World War and part of the interior was damaged by fire during this period.

The damaged sections were redesigned by the distinguished Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer after the war.

Dunrobin Castle hosted a boys’ school during the 1960s but is now back in Sutherland occupation, open to the public, the largest occupied house in the North Highlands and the area’s tourist must-see. During the summer months it even has its own railway station on the Inverness – Wick route. The railway from the south opened as far as Golspie in 1868, bringing the first flood of tourism to the area, an industry that remains important today. The next stretch of line, through Brora to Helmsdale, opened in 1870 and was known as the Duke of Sutherland’s Railway; it was the Third Duke who promoted the enterprise, designed to benefit the population and industries of his coastal estates. Not unnaturally, he had his own private station built at Dunrobin, the one that now serves tourists.

Golspie itself is a flourishing small town that has come to terms with its past and has several hotels (including, inevitably, the Sutherland Arms), restaurants, cafes and B&Bs to service its main industry. Mountain biking is a growth activity here, with some hair-raising trails – for real experts only – now cut into the seaward face of Ben Bhraggie.

A walk up and over Ben Bhraggie by way of the monument can easily be fitted into a day trip from Inverness to Golspie, driving north on the A9 or by train to Golspie Station. Dunrobin Castle is just a couple of miles further north and trains will stop at its railway station during the summer months.

Of course, the whole area still lies, literally, under the First Duke’s shadow.

But it’s not all shadow.